Cultural tourists’ trip to the bayou
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 6, 2012
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the feature debut of director Benh Zeitlin, was the darling of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, has already landed on several critics’ best-of-the-year lists and seems well on its way to being the Cinderella of next year’s Oscar ball.
And why not? This alternately scrappy and uplifting story of a young Louisiana girl on a fearless journey to save herself and preserve her fragile bayou community possesses all the hallmarks of an art film that also happens to be a rousing crowd-pleaser: Lush, imaginative visuals, a fable-like story reminiscent of great literature and one of the most memorable protagonists -- and debut performances -- to grace the big screen in a long time.
Indeed, as the invincible, pint-size heroine named Hushpuppy, newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis just may be the best reason to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” As the feral wild child at the story’s center, the 8-year-old actress delivers a watchful but ferociously brave performance, channeling a child’s apocalyptic sense of anxiety to become a determined force of resilience and communal consciousness. Her screen presence -- so charismatic, so uncommonly assured -- comes close to transcending a movie that, despite being steeped in good intentions and earnest aspirations, often winds up treating her like one of the untamed creatures of its title.
As “Beasts of the Southern Wild” opens, Hushpuppy is living with her unstable, loomingly powerful father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in The Bathtub, a water-logged community of misfits, drunks and swamp-dwellers who live on the outskirts of New Orleans -- and modernity in general.
When a Katrina-like storm approaches, Wink suffers a debilitating breakdown, forcing Hushpuppy to take matters into her own hands, floating up from the flood to save the wreckage of her once-vital community.
Interwoven with magic-realist millennialism, lyrical flashbacks and shots of crumbling ice caps, Hushpuppy’s psychic journey to keep her insecure family together becomes of a piece with a greater global and universal crackup. Stampeding through her imagination -- and the film itself -- are a herd of enormous boar-like creatures that snort and stamp their way to the edge of Hushpuppy’s interior and material world, itself a hive of animist enchantment.
With its intimations of Mark Twain, Maurice Sendak and Terrence Malick, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” wears its antecedents proudly, if self-consciously. Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar have strived to create a new visual language and storytelling style, one that rests somewhere between realism and mytho-poetics. As ambitious as that enterprise is, though, it results in a film that plays less like a grounded, human-scaled story than a dilettantish piece of cultural tourism.
With its mannered verbal rhetoric and production design of studied eccentricity, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” plays into the cult of authenticity that plagues so many admiring but patronizing portraits of rural America. As an example of aestheticized poverty and marginal characters destined to be described as “colorful,” it’s more in love with its own idealized imagery and hazy mysticism than probing the more gnarly political and social realities that lie beneath.
Maybe the best way to describe “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is faux-k art.
Even Hushpuppy’s name suggests an author more interested in the folk- and foodways of a culture-with-a-capital-C than the people who comprise it.
Too often, she and her peers are presented as curios to be exhibited rather than as fully realized -- if resolutely un-mythic -- human beings.
At one point, Wink orders Hushpuppy to “share with the dogs” when she eats; later, she concocts a hearty stew of cat food and condensed milk. When she devours a crab as her fellow Bathtub dwellers chant “Beast it!” the tableau comes uncomfortably close to a noble savage stereotype that’s as hackneyed as it is offensive.
That Wallis comes through such a troublesome framework not just unscathed but radiantly triumphant is a tribute to a gift that demands nothing less than unconditional respect, even awe.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the final scenes in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” even while harboring profound misgivings about the embedded assumptions that have preceded them. Thanks to Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” can be appreciated as a soaring hymn to spiritual attunement, courage and fortitude -- even if it’s set to the tune of yet one more condescending song of the South.
Contains thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, profanity and brief sensuality.